8 Lessons Learned from Starting my First Garden

 I first became interested in gardening in 2009 after watching an episode of the one season show, Meet the Natives: USA. This series follows four natives of Tanna, a 212.4 square mile island in the South Pacific. In this particular episode, entitled "The Suburbans," they visit a family in Peoria, Illinois.

There is a particular part where the narrator says “having plenty of food is the most important thing to us” with a clip of them sitting in their pavilion on the island, sharing food that was harvested and made by hand over an open fire. Then, it is the next day and the native visitors are helping the American family with the yard work. It’s fall and they’re shown how the leaf blower works. One Tannese person comments, “We would use this garden for farming. You could plant whatever you want here." He asks, “Why do people clean the grass? Is it for cows to graze?” The suburbanite answers “We plant the grass to make our ground softer and look good." The native looks unimpressed.

Take a tour of Michelle's garden.

In the defense of the homeowner, I can’t say that I’d be able to produce a better answer.

But really… how do you use your yard? At one point of my life, the yard was a place for grilling and enjoying a cocktail. At this point of my life, our yard is a place to send kids for fresh air during the day. And we're still grilling. But this summer, our yard has become a grocery store, too.

We moved into our current home a year ago and I loved the yard from the first second I saw it. It has that idyllic soft, green grass that you imagine walking barefoot in during the summer. It also has neglected flowerbeds surrounding the entire perimeter of the structure. We knew we wanted a garden and we already had spots with exposed soil, so instead of putting in a bush, we opted for vegetables and herbs. Now we’re growing tomatoes (regular, Roma, and cherry), Swiss chard, beets, basil, thyme, bush beans, rosemary, lemon balm, red lettuce, peppers, pumpkins and more.

We didn’t know what we were doing. We basically YouTubed information, planted, watered, and things started growing. It has been an ongoing experience and here is what I've learned so far:

1. Gardening feels more convenient than grocery shopping. This may not sound logical, but driving to the grocery store and buying something feels like a big hassle when I could just walk to my pantry, freezer or straight out to the garden to get the food we've grown. I know that we spent time and hours working to grow the food, but I forget all of that effort and just feel relieved that I already have what we need at our house and I don’t have to load everyone up to drive to the store for a jar of spaghetti sauce.

2. I have a new appreciation for the science and labor of the farming industry. I know I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of it all.

3. Kids really are more likely to eat vegetables when they grow them too. I’ve seen articles about this but I never really believed it. I've been proven wrong. My picky 4 year old now asks to eat cucumbers and tomatoes for a snack (see top photo). He still hates broccoli, but baby steps. 

4. Gardening has strengthened our family unit. Whenever my 4 year old sees his dad working outside, he quickly says “I have to help Daddy!,” puts on his shoes, and races out with his shovel. It’s a non-tech activity we can do together and it becomes a lesson to teach patience and perseverance to our children.

5. I don’t know if it’s cheaper than the grocery store. Honestly, I’m afraid to do the math. Penny by penny, it is probably a tie. But our produce wins when I measure using subjective quality and perceived value scales.

6. I’m more conscious of where I get groceries. After having a new awareness about growing food, I became more aware of where I was buying food. I don’t have anything against grocery stores or GMOs but I find myself seeking out local markets more often.

Sauerkraut in the making at the Erfurt house.

Sauerkraut in the making at the Erfurt house.

7. If you grow, then you must preserve. It never dawned on us that we would have a surplus that we would have to deal with. But faced with the reality of an overflowing garden, we've gotten into canning. Everyone in our family over the age of sixty thinks that it’s great that we do this; after all, they grew up doing it too. Our non-urbanist friends just continue to shake their heads. First, we didn’t want to live in a development, and now we’re canning. They just can’t wrap their heads around it.

8. The community provides. We didn’t have to look hard to find several community resources to help us on our journey. Our community garden group, Ranson Old Town Community Gardens, has an incredible program that provides fresh produce to our local soup kitchens. We have been able to take advantage of their weekly gardening classes, seeds, and seedlings that they often give away. They’ve basically given us half of our garden. I encourage you to watch this video to see what they’re all about.  But besides the organized, official group like the community garden, we’ve found a lot of support from everyday people. One of my husband’s colleagues found out we were canning and gave us her 21 quart All American pressure cooker. This thing is top of the line. She’s offered her glass jars, too!

We started our garden as simply a way to make better use of our home investment by utilizing our land to grow some food. But the experience has provided so many lessons in self-sufficiency and community, plus it just tastes so good!

Do you have a home garden or community garden plot? Tell us about it in the comments.

(All photos courtesy of the Erfurt family.)

Related stories